A push for transit-oriented development, but in what direction?

Transit oriented development — a generation-old concept in which municipal and economic growth are linked to mass transit — is a current darling among many Connecticut constituencies.

Called T-O-D to those in the know, it’s championed by environmentalists for its carbon footprint-shrinking possibilities; economic and business interests for its work force-friendly components; transit advocates for its car-minimizing focus; planners for its integrated approach to how we live; and a host of others.

TOD is unapologetically thrown around as the rationale behind the high-profile, though controversial projects of the New Britain to Hartford busway and the planned high-speed rail line from New Haven to Hartford to Springfield, Mass. And as the League of Conservation Voters late last year presented its policy focuses for the coming legislative session, TOD warranted a separate panel discussion.

“We want progress; we want livable, walkable community development,” said Roger Reynolds of Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “If it’s executive action, that’s great, local government, that’s great, legislative, that’s great.

“Any means necessary.”

Despite the economic downtown, Reynolds and others point out that the time required for TOD — decades in many cases — means beginning work now on projects to hit the next economic upswing. “Economies that are successful in hard economic times are not the ones that hide and do nothing,” Reynolds said. “They are the ones who understand the times they are living in and move forward.”

While Reynolds and others note that the era of the McMansion, suburban sprawl and car-centric development is over, there is disagreement over how and where to move toward TOD and whether it’s being done in the best way here. That includes the state’s longstanding TOD poster child — Stamford, a city whose 1960s-era master plan was geared to auto traffic on I-95 and the Merritt Parkway heading for suburban office campuses.

“Fast forward 30 years,” said Joe McGee, vice president of public policy for the Business Council of Fairfield County. “It’s around the train station.

“It’s really a profound change.”

McGee cited the administration of then-Mayor Dan Malloy that brought in major companies, locating them across the highway from the train station, transforming it to a transportation center hub that today handles 8,800 travelers a day, second only in all of MetroNorth to Grand Central Station and with more riders coming in to work than leaving.

It prompted developers like Peter Malkin, chairman of Malkin Properties and its parent Malkin Holding Co., which owns the Empire State Building, to jump in with office and apartment buildings on adjacent properties cobbled together from more than a dozen under- and unused industrial parcels.

“You’ve got to create a reason for people to want to live downtown,” Malkin said.

But there are those who think Stamford hasn’t quite done that.

“I think the quality of what’s been done is questionable,” said Norman Garrick, a University of Connecticut professor who specializes in civil and environmental engineering. “Pedestrian safety, character of the streets are not very pleasant.

“It’s not got the detail right that makes it an attractive place to live and work.”

‘Half the picture’

Garrick along with Alan Plattus, a professor of architecture and urbanism at Yale University and the director of the Yale Urban Design Workshop, point to Arlington, Va., and Portland, Ore., as ‘successful TOD cities.

“You can build the fastest train in the world, but if it doesn’t connect to other systems at a local level, including walkways and bicycle paths, it’s not going to do a lot of good,” said Plattus, who thinks the Stamford station fails to make that connection.

“Just building a single strand of transit to some new high standard, if you neglect the way in which people get to it and get off of it and get around once they get off of it, you’re only doing half the picture.”

One area of agreement among all sides in the TOD discussion are its tenets: zoning for greater densities and mixed use around transit hubs; less car parking around commercial zones; walking and biking connections to the area; public safety so people can use those connections; good schools that ensure an adequate work force base; attention to energy reliability and environmentally sound practices; and the availability of leisure activities from restaurants to theaters to art galleries.

Hartford, New Britain’s potential

Garrick and Plattus point to different areas of New Haven that have successfully adopted TOD practices linked to the rail and bus lines. And they both think Hartford, which has defied decades of rejuvenation efforts, has major TOD potential as the focal point of the two big transit projects and as a beneficiary of the planned Jackson Lab project.

Garrick said one key is parking, which he said has tripled since the 1960s while the population has dipped from about 180,00 to 120,000 with the job base holding steady. He suggests getting rid of much of the free state parking to force people to use transit. Both say that much will depend on how the area around the train station is reformulated.

Both, however, have concerns with the busway as a TOD springboard especially in New Britain. Garrick said the goal of moving the buses in and out quickly is not conducive to TOD. Plattus noted the stigma that bus travel still has in the U.S. “You don’t see a lot of people in three-piece suits riding the bus to work,” he said. “Good fast comfortable trains — lots of people will leave their car behind. That works.”

New Britain, nonetheless, is pushing ahead with zoning changes in two parts of the city aimed at revitalizing it as a walkable business and residential area reconnected across the Route 72 divide.

“It’s smart thinking for the state as whole,” said Mayor Timothy O’Brien. “If we’re going to have a future we need to make the kind of investments like this rapid transit. Are there going to be dislocations? Yup. But I would argue that those dislocations will be in areas that are not sustainable.”

Fairfield Metro Center

Among other TOD projects in Connecticut, an issue seems to be pulling the various pieces into focus at the same time. More than a few people point to the newly opened $60 million Fairfield Metro Center station as a good TOD example.

More than 10 years in the making, it is built on one-third of a 35-acre former brownfield site. Another third is re-zoned and set aside for 1 million square feet of private office, retail, hotel, conference and possibly residential development, and the final third is to be open space with access to the water.

Fairfield’s director of economic development. Mark Barnhart, estimates it could produce up to 5,000 new jobs and $3 million yearly in net new tax revenues. But with a 15 percent commercial vacancy rate and a poor economic outlook, there’s no saying when the rest of the space will be developed.

“It may take some time to develop,” Barnhart said. “But ultimately it will get developed.”

Naugatuck Valley

In the Naugatuck Valley, TOD efforts in communities along the Waterbury MetroNorth branch are hampered by the train service itself.

“It is not convenient; it does not provide the service level required to be successful with the TOD concept,” said Rick Dunne, executive director of the Valley Council of Governments, who noted that a 5:55 a.m. train recently added to the small number of daily runs increased service by 300 percent.

Under federal orders, the line, along with the Stamford to Danbury line, will have to install signals by 2015, which should improve the situation. Dunne would like to see changes like the kind under way on the Danbury branch that would allow trains to at least pass each other at certain points, something neither line can handle now.

In the meantime the Valley Council has received $265,000 in state money to develop land use models for TOD in Derby and Shelton, part of $5 million provided to 11 communities for similar work. But that represents less than half the funding and communities that requested TOD funds.

“The market drives certain things; government policy drives certain things,” Dunne said. “They have to come together at the same time.”

Starting to come together

State officials say things are coming together better than they have in years with key departments — Economic Development, Transportation and Energy and Environmental Protection — working with each other and local governments, which regulate their own zoning and planning.

“We’re going to try to be more systematic and coherent in bringing together agendas that have historically run in parallel and not worked well necessarily together,” said DEEP Commissioner Dan Esty, who also said he meets monthly with his counterparts in the other departments.

Tom Maziarz, the state Department of Transportation chief of policy and planning, admitted that state processes can get in the way, leaving TOD efforts hamstrung by many and sometimes conflicting requirements  “If we can decide certain areas where we want to promote TOD, we can put together technical teams to help them get through hurdles easier,” he said.

Even with such difficulties, DECD Deputy Commissioner Kip Bergstrom called transportation infrastructure investment a game-changer for TOD. “It’s the right time to get your house in order,” he said. “When the wave swells up, you have to be ready to pop up and ride it.”